Friday, May 20, 2011

Let Us Pray

1. A Prayer to the Queen of Heaven

An ancient tale tells the story of a foolish young man whose blind lust for magical power leads him to accidentally turn himself into a donkey (instead of a bird, which had been his goal).

Worse yet, having botched the initial transformation, he then discovers that he cannot accomplish the crucial step of reversing the process to regain his human shape.

The young fellow, named Lucius, had used unethical means (theft and deception) to obtain the magical potions with which he had planned to first turn himself into an owl, and then, once he had had his fill of soaring through the night sky, to return to normal. Not only had his actions been unvirtuous, they had been extremely unwise, for they had put him in possession of power that he not only had no right to, but that he had no understanding of.

From there, things only went from bad to worse for poor Lucius, and a series of increasingly degrading mishaps ensues. Finally, Lucius manages to escape from his most recent human tormentors, and finds himself on a deserted beach late one day. As the sun is setting, Lucius also sets his four legged form down on the sand. Exhausted and miserable he falls asleep to the rhythmic lullaby of the waves lapping the nearby shore.

But soon after dark, he awakes suddenly, and, lifting up his head (still that of an ass), he sees the full moon rising above the sea. Now Lucius had never been a really wicked person. Certainly he was self-centered, short sighted, and morally lax. Nevertheless, he was still, at least in a very limited way, something like a good Pagan in the widest and most generous sense, and also, way down deep inside, a decent human being in spite of his many faults (think Titus Pullo in HBO's Rome).

And so it was that in his mind he now looked not merely on the Moon, but on the face of the Great Goddess, Mother of all humankind, in all her glory, and to whom he now prayed (as those who are only just barely religious often do when they have run out of all other options), as described in this first-hand account he is supposed to have given later:

I went down to the sea to purify myself by bathing in it. Seven times I dipped my head under the waves—seven, according to the divine philosopher Pythagoras, is a number that suits all religious occasions—and with joyful eagerness, though tears were running down my hairy face, I offered this soundless prayer to the supreme Goddess:

"Blessed Queen of Heaven, whether you are pleased to be known as Ceres, the original harvest mother who in joy at the finding of your lost daughter Proserpine abolished the rude acorn diet of our forefathers and gave them bread raised from the fertile soil of Eleusis; or whether as celestial Venus, now adored at sea-girt Paphos, who at the time of the first Creation coupled the sexes in mutual love and so contrived that man should continue to propagate his kind for ever; or whether as Artemis, the physician sister of Phoebus Apollo, reliever of the birth pangs of women, and now adored in the ancient shrine at Ephesus; or whether as dread Proserpine to whom the owl cries at night, whose triple face is potent against the malice of ghosts, keeping them imprisoned below earth; you who wander through many sacred groves and are propitiated with many different rites—you whose womanly light illumines the walls of every city, whose misty radiance nurses the happy seeds under the soil, you who control the wandering course of the sun and the very power of his rays—I beseech you, by whatever name, in whatever aspect, with whatever ceremonies you deign to be invoked, have mercy on me in my extreme distress, restore my shattered fortune, grant me repose and peace after this long sequence of miseries. End my sufferings and perils, rid me of this hateful four-footed disguise, return me to my family, make me Lucius once more. But if I have offended some god of unappeasable cruelty who is bent on making life impossible for me, at least grant me one sure gift, the gift of death.”

After having poured his heart out to the Goddess in this way, Lucius lay back down again and slept. And dreamed:

I had scarcely closed my eyes before the apparition of a woman began to rise from the middle of the sea with so lovely a face that the gods themselves would have fallen down in adoration of it. First the head, then the whole shining body gradually emerged and stood before me poised on the surface of the waves. Yes, I will try to describe this transcendent vision, for though human speech is poor and limited, the Goddess herself will perhaps inspire me with poetic imagery sufficient to convey some slight inkling of what I saw.

Her long thick hair fell in tapering ringlets on her lovely neck, and was crowned with an intricate chaplet in which was woven every kind of flower. Just above her brow shone a round disc, like a mirror, or like the bright face of the moon, which told me who she was. Vipers rising from the left-hand and right-hand partings of her hair supported this disc, with ears of corn bristling beside them. Her many-colored robe was of finest linen; part was glistening white, part crocus-yellow, part glowing red and along the entire hem a woven bordure of flowers and fruit clung swaying in the breeze. But what caught and held my eye more than anything else was the deep black luster of her mantle. She wore it slung across her body from the right hip to the left shoulder, where it was caught in a knot resembling the boss of a shield; but part of it hung in innumerable folds, the tasseled fringe quivering. It was embroidered with glittering stars on the hem and everywhere else, and in the middle beamed a full and fiery moon.

In her right hand she held a bronze rattle, of the sort used to frighten away the God of the Sirocco; its narrow rim was curved like a sword-kit and three little rods, which sang shrilly when she shook the handle, passed horizontally through it. A boat-shaped gold dish hung from her left hand, and along the upper surface of the handle writhed an asp with puffed throat and head raised ready to strike. On her divine feet were slippers of palm leaves, the emblem of victory.

All the perfumes of Arabia floated into my nostrils as the Goddess deigned to address me: “You see me here, Lucius, in answer to your prayer. I am Nature, the universal Mother, mistress of all the elements, primordial child of time, sovereign of all things spiritual, queen of the dead, queen also of the immortals, the single manifestation of all gods and goddesses that are. My nod governs the shining heights of Heaven, the wholesome sea-breezes the lamentable silences of the world below. Though I am worshipped in many aspects, known by countless names, and propitiated with all manner of different rites, yet the whole round earth venerates me. The primeval Phrygians call me Pessinuntica, Mother of the gods; the Athenians, sprung from their own soil, call me Cecropian Artemis; for the islanders of Cyprus I am Paphian Aphrodite; for the archers of Crete I am Dictynna; for the trilingual Sicilians, Stygian Proserpine; and for the Eleusinians their ancient Mother of the Corn.

Some know me as Juno, some as Bellona of the Battles; others as Hecate, others again as Rhamnubia, but both races of Ethiopians, whose lands the morning sun first shines upon, and the Egyptians who excel in ancient learning and worship me with ceremonies proper to my godhead, call me by my true name, namely, Queen Isis. I have come in pity of your plight. I have come to favor and aid you. Weep no more, lament no longer; the hour of deliverance, shone over by my watchful light, is at hand! ..."

Should I give away how the story ends? Can you guess? Let's just say that although Apuleius' novel has a certain notoriety as a prominent example of "The Pornographic Tradition" of ancient literature, it nevertheless has just as great a claim to being a notoriously Pagan book in the religious sense, as well as a work in which a serious philosopher presents many subtle Platonic concepts concealed within a highly entertaining redaction of a popular story. That is to say, L'Asino D'Oro is in the end both spiritually uplifting and intellectually satisfying.

2. "Listen to the words ...."

The story of Lucius was immortalized by the writer Apuleius in his Latin novel The Metamorphoses (aka "The Golden Ass"). Eighteen centuries later, Gerald Gardner's Witchcraft Today (the pdf of the complete book can be viewed here, and if for any reason that link doesn't work, just do a google search on something like "gardner witchcraft today pdf") was published, announcing to the world that the ancient worship of the Goddess was still alive. Therein Gardner explains that he is oathbound not to "detail the rites and prayers" of the Wiccan religion. But he can tell us that when an initiation rite is about to start there is first read "a charge", beginning as follows:

Listen to the words of the Great Mother, who of old was also called among men Artemis, Astarte, Dione, Melusine, Aphrodite and many other names. At mine altars the youth of Lacedaemon made due sacrifice.

Once in the month, and better it be when the moon is full, meet in some secret place and adore me, who am queen of all the magics .... For I am a gracious goddess, I give joy on earth, certainty, not faith, while in life; and upon death, peace unutterable, rest and the ecstasy of the goddess. Nor do I demand aught in sacrifice ....

Gardner then states that these words show the influence of "a similar charge" that came from "the Romans" and/or "the ancient mysteries". The cult of Isis was, of course, an ancient mystery religion especially popular among Romans. Apuleius was a prominent Roman citizen, and archaeologists have discovered the remains of Roman era cultic sites dedicated to the Goddess Isis in Britain. Gardner even explicitly mentions Apuleius' Metamorphoses in the Forward to Witchcraft Today.

Apuleius' novel is also mentioned by Gardner in his second book on Wicca, The Meaning of Witchcraft, where Gardner calls on Apuleius as a witness to the fact that Witches do not worship Satan:

Lucius relates with relish a number of macabre stories of the powers of witches in his day. Yet they are not devotees of Satan, of whom Lucius had never heard. Their goddess is Hecate, and Hecate, in the vision which delivers Lucius from bondage, is declared to be identical with Isis, the gracious and lovely Queen of Heaven. That is, she is the same goddess in her dark and light aspects, as is natural to a goddess of the moon.

Gardner's obvious familiarity with Apuleius' work removes any possibility of thinking that the significant similarities between the Wiccan Charge of the Goddess and the epiphany and aretalogy of Isis in The Metamorphoses could be accidental. However, there was undoubtedly another source for the Charge, and one much closer to Gardner in time. This was the famous book by Charles Godfrey Leland, Aradia: Gospel of the Witches, first published in 1899. As the following excerpt shows, in fact, Gardner was borrowing heavily and directly from Leland:

This is the Gospel (Vangelo) of the Witches:

Diana greatly loved her brother Lucifer, the god of the Sun and of the Moon, the god of Light (Splendor), who was so proud of his beauty, and who for his pride was driven from Paradise.

Diana had by, her brother a daughter, to whom they gave the name of Aradia [i.e. Herodias].

In those days there were on earth many rich and many poor.

The rich made slaves of all the poor.

In those days were many slaves who were cruelly treated; in every palace tortures, in every castle prisoners.

Many slaves escaped. They fled to the country; thus they became thieves and evil folk. Instead of sleeping by night, they plotted escape and robbed their masters, and then slew them. So they dwelt in the mountains and forests as robbers and assassins, all to avoid slavery.

Diana said one day to her daughter Aradia:
'Tis true indeed that thou a spirit art,
But thou wert born but to become again
A mortal; thou must go to earth below
To be a teacher unto women and men
Who fain would study witchcraft in thy school

Yet like Cain's daughter thou shalt never be,
Nor like the race who have become at last
Wicked and infamous from suffering,
As are the Jews and wandering Zingari,
Who are all thieves and knaves; like unto them
Ye shall not be....

And thou shalt be the first of witches known;
And thou shalt be the first of all i' the world;
And thou shalt teach the art of poisoning,
Of poisoning those who are great lords of all;
Yea, thou shalt make them die in their palaces;
And thou shalt bind the oppressor's soul (with power); 1
And when ye find a peasant who is rich,
Then ye shall teach the witch, your pupil, how
To ruin all his crops with tempests dire,
With lightning and with thunder (terrible),
And the hall and wind....

And when a priest shall do you injury
By his benedictions, ye shall do to him
Double the harm, and do it in the name
Of me, Diana, Queen of witches all!

And when the priests or the nobility
Shall say to you that you should put your faith
In the Father, Son, and Mary, then reply:
"Your God, the Father, and Maria are
Three devils....

"For the true God the Father is not yours;
For I have come to sweep away the bad,
The men of evil, all will I destroy!

"Ye who are poor suffer with hunger keen,
And toll in wretchedness, and suffer too
Full oft imprisonment; yet with it all
Ye have a soul, and for your sufferings
Ye shall be happy in the other world,
But ill the fate of all who do ye wrong!"
Now when Aradia had been taught, taught to work all witchcraft, how to destroy the evil race (of oppressors) she (imparted it to her pupils) and said unto them:
When I shall have departed from this world,
Whenever ye have need of anything,
Once in the month, and when the moon is full,
Ye shall assemble in some desert place,
Or in a forest all together join
To adore the potent spirit of your queen,
My mother, great Diana. She who fain
Would learn all sorcery yet has not won
Its deepest secrets, them my mother will
Teach her, in truth all things as yet unknown.
And ye shall all be freed from slavery,
And so ye shall be free in everything; p. 6
And as the sign that ye are truly free,
Ye shall be naked in your rites, both men
And women also: this shall last until
The last of your oppressors shall be dead ....

In the next installment of this series, Let Us Pray, I'll look at two other important sources of insight into the question of prayer as it relates to Witches: Margaret Murray and Doreen Valiente.

Ronald Hutton on Pagan History: "a demonstrable continuity, text to text and person to person, across the centuries."

I would strongly encourage everyone to read the interview with Professor Ronald Hutton by Caroline Tully over at Necropolis Now.

Therein, Hutton commits himself to four positions that, at least to my reading, appear to be very much at odds with how the Huttonian view of Pagan history is often interpreted by those (especially Pagans) who claim to agree with Professor Hutton:
  1. That "no less than four different cultural streams" provide a continuous connection between ancient and modern Paganism: (a) practitioners of ritual (learned) magic, (b) practitioners of popular magical traditions ("cunning folk"), (c) those who participate in "folk rites", and (d) lovers of Pagan art, literature, and philosophy.
  2. That modern Pagans are the legitimate inheritors of ancient Pagan traditions that are not only continuous with ancient Pagan cultures, but that have been "massively important and ubiquitous" throughout the entire history of European Christendom.
  3. That there is "a direct line of transmission" connecting modern Paganism to ancient Egyptian religion. This transmission constitutes "a demonstrable continuity, text to text and person to person, across the centuries."
  4. That the Christianization of Europe was never complete, and that the modern Pagan revival takes as its starting point those parts of ancient Paganism that managed to survive centuries of attempted extirpation by the Church.
In other words, those who wish to claim that modern Paganism is devoid of all connection to ancient forms of Paganism can no longer claim Ronald Hutton as a champion of their position! In fact, Professor Hutton goes out of his way in the interview to insist that he has never promoted that point of view.

Nevertheless, Hutton persists in the following three very problematic positions:
  • (i) That all of those who were part of the "four streams" mentioned above were purely and only Christian, and cannot in any way be considered to have been "Pagan". This includes, most emphatically, all of the victims of the Burning Times.
  • (ii) That the "four streams" are neatly separable into two discrete groups with little or no overlap. Streams (a) and (d) represent an "elite" super-stream ("super-stream" is my word, not Hutton's) of learned magicians and scholarly antiquarians; while streams (b) and (c) constitute a "popular" super-stream of folk beliefs and practices. This clear bright line between learned and folk streams is crucial to Hutton's position that these Pagan survivals cannot be construed as indicating the survival Paganism itself.
  • (iii) That the ancient forms of "ritual magic" to which modern Paganism is directly and continuously connected "across the centuries", constituted a "counter-cultural" movement in direct opposition to the "religious norms" of ancient Paganism.